Cabinet Office: Standards-setting Bodies

– in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 11:38 am, 29th March 2007

rose to call attention to the case for putting standards-setting bodies falling within the responsibility of the Cabinet Office on a statutory footing; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, there are five such bodies: the Committee on Standards in Pubic Life, the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the Civil Service Commission, the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. They operate in different ways but have in common their role in advising on and/or regulating the Government's approach to public appointments, as well as, in the case of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, offering advice more widely on conduct in public life.

They are all non-statutory bodies which rely on the Cabinet Office for their resources. The Cabinet Office liaises with the Committee on Standards in Public Life, while the remaining four are supported by its cross-government independent offices unit.

I think it is appropriate to address their status and responsibilities. The Public Administration Committee of the other place has already taken some evidence on their role as part of its inquiry into ethics and standards, but that was some months ago. I think that now is a useful time to engage in debate and draw on the knowledge available in this House. It is a useful opportunity to get some idea of the Government's thinking.

The case for putting these bodies on a statutory basis can be grouped under three headings: independence, accountability and certainty. The case for enshrining the independence of such bodies is clear. It is the same as that used by the Government in the passage of the Constitutional Reform Act. On that occasion, the Government argued that not only was it essential that the highest court was independent, but it had to be seen to be independent. For that reason the Appellate Committee of this House is to be replaced in two years' time by a supreme court. The same principle applies but, I would argue, with greater force in the case of these standards-setting bodies. It applies with more force because there is, I would contend, more public scepticism about the independence of these bodies than ever existed in respect of the House of Lords in its judicial capacity.

Leaving bodies to advise Ministers and variously to regulate behaviour, where those bodies are appointed by Ministers and rely on government for their resources, creates grounds for doubt about their detachment from government. Janet Gaymer, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, gave a small but telling instance of the problem in her evidence to the Public Administration Committee. She noted that her office e-mail address used to include the words "Cabinet Office". As she said,

"it will send out the wrong message. Happily, that has now been changed, but that was the case".

In practice, these bodies have worked well—I have no criticism to make of them, rather the reverse—but perception is crucial. Enshrining independence in public authoritative form, through statute, strengthens not only the bodies themselves but also Ministers. Problems can arise where Ministers reject the advice of a standards-setting body, but they can also arise, in terms of public perception and hence acceptance, when Ministers accept the advice of such a body. If a body appointed by Ministers provides advice that is seen as overly favourable, or at least not overly critical, of Ministers, there is the danger of its advice being discounted. The cash-for-peerages scandal has arisen because the system worked. Certain nominations were blocked. But what would have happened if a controversial nomination had been cleared by the appointments commission? Whatever the objectivity of the commission, there is the danger that people would say, "Ah, it would say that; its members are appointed by the Prime Minister".

It is important that the independence of standards-setting bodies not only exists but is seen to exist. Creating the bodies by statute and enshrining their independence not only delivers independence but arguably is the most effective formal mechanism by which they can be shown to be independent. Much will then depend on what they do. The formal framework is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

The second ground is that of accountability. The chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair Graham, in his evidence to the Public Administration Committee, said that the Prime Minister was accountable to Parliament for the work of the committee. Given the wide remit of the committee, which includes advising on parliamentary as well as ministerial conduct, I am not sure it is appropriate that the committee is accountable solely to the Prime Minister. I understand Sir Alistair's argument on the value of the arrangement, but I also see the problems.

There is a general issue of accountability. Who do the standards-setting bodies report to? In his evidence to the Public Administration Committee, the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden, who I am delighted to see in his place, said that the committee advised on individual cases, but if Ministers failed to consult, or if the committee's advice was ignored, it published the facts on the website. As my noble and learned friend went on to say:

"We then leave it to whatever forces will play upon that set of circumstances, and I think that is right ... These matters are in the end controlled by public opinion in the sense that they decide what is and what is not acceptable".

Transparency is clearly a powerful weapon, but the issue is one of accountability, of reporting to a body that, if necessary, can take action. My noble and learned friend does not wish his committee to have enforcement powers—I have no issue with that—but the question is whether the committee should report to a body that is in a position to act—in this instance, Parliament. Janet Gaymer also touched on the issue in her evidence. She said:

"I suppose that if you ask me to whom I am accountable I will say that initially it is to the public who is on the receiving end of my work. But as representatives of the public in Parliament clearly there is an element of scrutiny which Parliament must have, which is why we are sitting in front of the Select Committee".

The problem with this line of argument is that there is no structured or systematic means by which the public can hold these bodies to account. Reliance is essentially being placed on the media or on a Select Committee to pick up on a particular case. I see no reason why there should not be a more systematic line of accountability to Parliament. That does not rule out being answerable to others. The Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House, when it reported in 2004 on the role of statutory regulators, reached two conclusions that are pertinent to today's debate. The first was that independence and accountability are compatible with one another—one is not at the expense of the other—and the second was that giving regulators a statutory basis does not prevent them having a wide arc of answerability. Indeed, the committee drew attention to what it referred to as 360 degrees of accountability. I see no reason why the same would not apply to these bodies were they to be established by statute.

The third argument is that of certainty. Giving these bodies a statutory base would deliver certainty in remit and continuity. The need for this is reinforced by recent developments. The failure of the Prime Minister to renew the contract of Sir Alistair Graham as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has attracted public attention; indeed, it was pursued in this House on Tuesday in Question Time. The important point for this debate is not the failure to renew Sir Alistair's contract—the practice has been to serve a single three-year term—but rather the uncertainty that has been created by not having a successor in place. This point was made by Sir Alistair in his letter to the Cabinet Secretary on 13 March. He noted that it would likely take some months for a successor to be identified and appointed following open competition. As he continued:

"This will leave the Committee without a permanent Chairman for what is likely to be a considerable period and, during a time of unprecedented public concern about standards of conduct in Government and erosion in trust in the political process more generally. This risks the perception, unfair or otherwise, that this Government places a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life".

The effect of not having timely arrangements in place for a successor, he said,

"will be to ensure that the Committee is unable to undertake its core work for a considerable period of time. The inevitable perception will therefore be that the Government does not wish this Committee to be actively undertaking a programme of work at this stage".

The other instance I wish to cite derives from the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Here I refer to the evidence given by the chairman of the commission, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, to the Public Administration Committee, in another of its inquiries—that on propriety and honours—published in July of last year. In his evidence, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, was unsure of the scope of the commission in dealing with a resignation honours list. Did it have the responsibility to scrutinise such a list? The noble Lord told the committee:

"It is embarrassing for me, because frankly, I think they should. I think it does, actually. I think this will fall under our scrutiny but I am rather embarrassed that I cannot give you complete certainty. I will follow it up afterwards and give you complete certainty".

He later wrote to the committee to say:

"My understanding now is that if there is a Prime Minister's resignation list, we will be asked to vet it".

As the committee concluded:

"The Prime Minister's vague assurances and the Appointment's Commission 'understanding' that it will vet any resignation honours list are unnecessarily equivocal. The Appointments Commission is specifically charged with considering names which have not been subject to the normal assessment and selection processes. This body should be clearly and unequivocally responsible for vetting Prime Ministerial resignation honours lists".

On these grounds—independence, accountability and certainty—there is a prima facie case for putting the five standards-setting bodies on a statutory basis. I am aware that some of those who run these bodies are not necessarily persuaded of the case, but then again they have not set their faces against it. I think the time has come to give the matter serious consideration.

The case for putting the House of Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory footing has long been made. The royal commission chaired by my noble friend Lord Wakeham recommended a statutory Appointments Commission. My noble friend Lord Hurd, in his evidence to the Public Administration Committee, argued that the appointments process should be settled by Parliament and overseen by a body it has set up and operated through rules it has determined. The committee concluded that the commission,

"has shown that it can scrutinise nominations effectively and stand up to pressure from political parties. Nevertheless, its position should be reinforced by defining the Appointments Commission's role, powers and independence in statute as soon as possible, and certainly as part of any reform of the House of Lords which retains an appointed element of its membership".

The proposal for a statutory Appointments Commission is embodied in the House of Lords Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood. It is relevant to note that the Commissioner for Appointments in Scotland is established on a statutory basis, and has been operating as such since 2004. It is therefore timely to address this issue. We do not know when the Public Administration Committee in the other place will report, so it is important that the Minister does not hide behind a potential report in order to avoid offering us the Government's thinking. Does the Minister accept that there is a case for protecting the independence of these bodies and that there is need for enhancing accountability and certainty? If he does, does he accept that doing so by statute is the most effective way of delivering those goals? If not, what is the Government's alternative?

We have seen floated the idea that theses bodies may be merged into a single super-ethics body. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, who is in her place, referred to it on Tuesday. I would argue strongly against such a proposal. The five bodies fulfil distinct functions and require particular expertise and resources to carry out their tasks. The bodies may be created in one super-statute, but with each retaining its independence and integrity. The alternative would be to have each created by a distinct Act.

I am glad of the opportunity to raise this issue. That is the purpose of these general debates, and I look forward to the contributions from other noble Lords as well as the response of the Minister. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat 11:52 am, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I give sincere thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing a very interesting and important debate. I am only sorry that more Members of your Lordships' House have not put down their names to speak.

I agree almost entirely with what the noble Lord has said. The debate raises a particularly important issue in relation to what is loosely called the royal prerogative but is in fact the Prime Minister's prerogative. The Prime Minister's prerogative covers an enormous field. It covers any decision to go to war, almost all aspects of the Civil Service, the ministerial code of conduct, appointments to your Lordships' House, almost all public appointments and treaty-making powers.

There is a widely held belief that the Prime Minister's prerogative powers are excessive and should be diminished. In particular, there is a very strong belief that the Civil Service should become a statutory body, and, as part of that, the Civil Service Commissioners should become a statutory commission. There is a long history behind this. A Civil Service Act was included in the Cook-Maclennan report negotiated before the 1997 election between the late Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart, who of course will be winding up for these Benches.

The Government confirmed their commitment to a Civil Service Act in response to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Public Service in July 1998. They confirmed it again to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, of which I was then a member, in July 2000 in response to the committee's sixth report. The Civil Service Act was recommended once again by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in its ninth report in April 2003. That in turn was followed by the publication of a report and draft Bill by the Select Committee on Public Administration of the House of Commons in December 2003, and then by an Executive Powers and Civil Service Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill as a Private Member's Bill. That Bill received its Second Reading in your Lordships' House on 5 March 2004. It inspired a three-hour debate in which a Civil Service Bill was supported by, among other speakers, the noble Lords, Lord Sheldon and Lord Wakeham, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who was and still is the First Civil Service Commissioner, and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, who was then the immediate ex-Cabinet Secretary, as well as by many others. From the government Front Bench, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, confirmed the Government's intention to introduce a Civil Service Bill in his response to the debate. The Government then published a draft Bill as part of a consultation paper in November 2004. However, since then, the whole scene seems to have fallen alarmingly quiet. It is absolutely clear from the history that the Government's attitude to a Civil Service Bill is the same as St Augustine's attitude to chastity: not yet.

Of the other four bodies in addition to the Civil Service Commissioners mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, two should unquestionably become statutory bodies. Those are the House Of Lords Appointments Commission and the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. In both of those, the independence of the commission from the Executive is essential. That is obvious and beyond any doubt in the case of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It must be as impartial as possible in selecting the independent Members of your Lordships' House and in vetting party nominees. That is recognised on all sides and it seems clear that any Act for the further reform of your Lordships' House is more than likely to give a statutory basis to the Appointments Commission.

The position of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, OCPA, is perhaps not quite so obvious. OCPA does not make or recommend individual appointments. It lays down rules of practice for the appointment process and for monitoring the working of the appointments system. There is of course the long-standing problem that all Governments, although perhaps especially that of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, have tried to stuff public offices with people who are committed party supporters.

OCPA was created as a result of the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and it has done a great deal of good. The public appointments system is now, I think one can say, less partisan than for a long time past, but there is some way still to go and it is essential that public appointments should, as far as possible, be made on merit without regard to party allegiance. OCPA is vulnerable as long as it remains within the remit of the Cabinet Office. Its independence needs to be protected by making it a statutory body.

That leaves two bodies: the Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, known as ACBA. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, did not mention ACBA during his speech. ACBA can impose restrictions on civil servants wishing to take up outside appointments for a limited period after their retirement from office and it can make recommendations to outgoing Ministers to the same effect, although recommendations to Ministers, unlike those to the Civil Service, are not binding. It performs a useful service, but it is concerned mainly with advising on individual cases, and a case is not made out for setting it up as an independent statutory body.

Finally, I served on the Committee on Standards in Public Life for six years under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, who I am glad to see follows me as a speaker, and Sir Nigel Wicks. Since the committee was set up in 1994 by John Major, it has performed very valuable services to the country. It is, of course, a purely advisory committee without powers, and it is arguable that, as a purely advisory committee that gives advice mainly to the Government, it is appropriate for it to remain within the remit of the Cabinet Office and answerable directly to the Prime Minister. I understand that this is the view of Sir Alistair Graham, as expressed by him in response to a journalist's question at Tuesday morning's meeting, at which I was present, on the publication of the committee's annual report.

I do not agree with Sir Alistair on that point; I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. The scope of the committee's work goes beyond that of the Government and the Executive, as demonstrated by our seventh report on standards of conduct in your Lordships' House and our eighth report on standards of conduct in the House of Commons. The committee should be an independent body, with the power to select its own targets for investigation. It does not have that power at present. It proposes subjects, but it is required to obtain clearance from the Cabinet Office as to whether it is to take them up. Broadly speaking, it should be to ethics in public life what the National Audit Office is to public finances. A statutory basis would also give the committee greater security. There was always a worry at the back of the minds of its members that the committee might be abolished altogether, or perhaps, more likely, that its funds would be cut to a level that would make it ineffective.

Sir Alistair seems to have annoyed the Government by his outspokenness. It is true that he has departed from the practice of his predecessors, who all acted on the basis that they should, as chair of the committee, speak only on its behalf and not express their own views on controversial issues. I do not complain about the fact that Sir Alistair's appointment was not renewed for a three-year term, given that no predecessor has been reappointed for a second term. It was, however, seriously wrong to refuse to extend Sir Alistair's appointment for the few months until his successor can be appointed. The delay in making the appointment shows that the Cabinet Office is not an appropriate body to sponsor the committee. This is the third successive occasion on which the search for the successor to the current holder of the office started too late to be able to appoint the successor at the end of the term of the existing chair. On both occasions, however, the term of office of the existing chair was extended until a new chair could be appointed. The refusal to extend Sir Alistair's term for a few months seems vindictive. I have high regard for Rita Donaghy, the senior committee member who has been asked to act as an interim chair. Inevitably, however, the committee will be marking time during this period.

To sum up, the case for giving three of the five bodies listed by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, a statutory basis is unanswerable. The three bodies are the Civil Service Commissioners, the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The case, although perhaps not unanswerable, is very strong in the case of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is only in the case of ACBA that I believe that it would be inappropriate to set up an independent statutory body.

Photo of Lord Neill of Bladen Lord Neill of Bladen Crossbench 12:04 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on bringing this debate before the House. The issue of whether there should be a statutory basis for Cabinet-appointed committees is discussed over the dinner table and in such contexts, but to my knowledge it has never been debated on the Floor of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, brought to his speech a wealth of study from several committees with whose work and history he is familiar.

I have a modest contribution to make; it is entirely pragmatic and based on my knowledge and experience of one such committee, the Standards in Public Life Committee. When the time came for my noble and learned friend Lord Nolan to lay down office—he had been appointed for a three-year term—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, asked me whether I would be willing to succeed my noble and learned friend, which naturally was an impossible task for anyone. I was further asked whether I would be happy for the terms of reference to be extended to include an inquiry into the funding of political parties and more general issues about how the finances of democratic life, so far as it consists of party activity, are to be handled. I thought that that was a challenging remit for the first task that I would undertake.

Before coming to my specific comments, I should like to make one general comment. The principled approach, advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is that essentially all such committees as we are discussing should have statutory underpinning. Of course, that criterion would create certainty. Although the arguments are not at all the same, the pragmatic approach is not dissimilar. It considers whether you want your highest court in the land to be a committee of the House of Lords or to be hived off and turned into a Supreme Court in a separate building. I will not re-enter the argument. There are two quite different philosophical approaches to that.

Based on my experience, my approach essentially is pragmatic. My first point is on flexibility. Looking back at how the Standards in Public Life Committee was set up, we all recall that there was a period of allegations of sleaze, particularly directed at the Conservative Party and its Members in the other place. In those days, the big issue was cash for questions; today we have in our minds cash for honours. That was the leading point, although there were other severe criticisms of the conduct of particular Members of Parliament.

Although I was not involved at the time, I recall that the then Prime Minister, the right honourable John Major, considered that he had to take drastic action to clean the stables. In October 1994, he set up the committee with the terms of reference:

"To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life".

I do not know the exact history of how that was drafted, but I suspect that the Cabinet Secretary of the day would have played an important part and a few people would have discussed those terms of reference. Essentially, this was an initiative by the then Prime Minister to deal with what he conceived to be an urgent situation where the good name of politics was in question, because such accusations spill over from one party to another and everyone is tarnished.

While the committee was at work on its first major project, which was the seminal report on standards that laid down the Nolan conditions about standards in public life and the seven principles—it is a remarkable document—the question arose whether the committee could investigate the funding of political parties. In May 1995, around seven months after it had been appointed, the committee's response to this was:

"It would not be within the committee's present terms of reference to examine the overall nature of party political funding and, for example, to address such questions as whether state funding of political parties was desirable".

It went on to explain that the chairman had said that some aspects of the funding of political parties did come within the existing terms. I shall read the last sentence of that statement:

"It would be wholly wrong for political parties to seek or accept funds against an expectation of, or following, the award of public office, honours, contracts or improper influence".

The committee stated that principle.

The incoming Labour Party made it perfectly clear in its 1997 election manifesto and later in the Queen's Speech that it intended to refer to the Nolan committee the question of funding of political parties. A one-sentence amendment was drawn up for the committee stating:

"To review issues in relation to the funding of political parties, and to make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements".

The obvious points I am making about this, on a pragmatic basis, are that first you had Prime Minister John Major confronted with a situation that needed to be handled with some urgency, and then there was an incoming Government with a problem about the funding of political parties that they had been harping on about for some time and wanted dealt with immediately. How would all that have played out in a statutory context? It would have been completely different. It is hard to imagine a Bill to set up a committee getting through Parliament in less than six months—it would have been fast going for such legislation—and to amend it would have meant further debate and argument. The statutory approach would have had disadvantages.

I shall say more about Lord Nolan's remarks on this later. On accountability, it is crystal clear that the Prime Minister is accountable for the creation of such a committee. The right honourable John Major appointed it and the present Prime Minister continued its existence. He has relied and depended upon it. From 1997 to the present, at any point during Question Time in the House of Commons a Member could have asked, "Why did you set up a body like this? Why does it not have a statutory background? The public are dissatisfied and they do not trust the committee". To my knowledge, not a word to that effect has ever been heard. Any suggestion that the Committee on Standards in Public Life was thought to lack independence seems almost laughable.

On the first morning of my first day on the committee, the name on the letter I had to look at was that of Bernie Ecclestone. I do not need to continue the story. Did we appear to lack independence? From then on, the Government did not agree 100 per cent with our report on the funding of political parties, but they agreed to a high percentage of it. Certainly the media, which obviously I had to meet every time we published an annual report or any other report, could have asked me questions based on the public perception that we lacked independence. It is a completely mistaken idea to think that either we lacked it or were perceived to do so. In fact, at times we have been thought to be a bit of a pain in the neck or thorn in the side of government by coming out with reports and making recommendations that have been very unwelcome.

That takes me on to my second major point: autonomy. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to getting the identity of the next topic we were going to investigate agreed with the Cabinet Office and, via that, with the Prime Minister. It is correct that we had dialogue with the Cabinet Office before we undertook a new project, but my recollection is that the committee, when I was chairman, as I was for three and a half years, always had a high moral and philosophical position that, if it came to the crunch, so long as we were there as a committee and our terms of reference were written in the broad language in which they were, it was finally up to us whether we would engage in a particular topic, even if it was thought undesirable by the Executive, particularly the Prime Minister. I do not believe we were ever intimidated out of looking at a subject that we thought ought to be looked at.

The rather loose and informal way in which the committee was set up had advantages. You select people of the requisite integrity and background. We had three Members of Parliament and some admirable people from business and other sections of life who were simply not going to be pushed around. If you tried to push them around, they would simply resign. You can see the advantage of the flexibility of getting the committee set up and in amending its terms of reference and the vagueness about who finally can dictate the next topic. It is my belief that we were in a position where we could always do that.

The disadvantage is that, until the noble Lord, Lord Norton, spoke, one did not know the range of references and so on, so I cannot give him an adequate response, but I can take up his three themes. On independence, the committee I am talking about was perceived to be independent. I am not quarrelling with those who say that it would be safer or better to put other committees on a statutory footing. I do not know about their work—I have not studied them enough—so that may well be correct.

On accountability, I have talked about the accountability of the Prime Minister for the appointment of the committee and allowing it to continue to exist. Were he to dismiss it because it stood in his way, it would be a serious threat to his position. The committee I am talking about had reached such a position that that would have been a highly questionable and politically dangerous course to take. I also agree with the author who was quoted as saying that the committee is accountable to the public. I certainly think that is true of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

There has been talk about the tenure of office. That seems a straightforward case of sheer incompetence by the Cabinet Office. In my case it was meant to be a three-year term, but I was kept in office for an extra six months, simply, I think, because there was other work going on and no one took the trouble to appoint a successor. I believe that may have happened in other cases; I know of one currently, and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, mentioned that there had been three such examples. That incompetence should be addressed. The selection of a new chairman in due course should be treated seriously.

I am speaking about the single committee I know about. The absence of a statutory base has been an advantage, and the Government would be disadvantaged by a prescriptive rule that any standard-setting body must always be created by force of statute.

Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Spokesperson in the Lords, Scotland, Spokesperson In the Lords (With Special Responsibility for Civil Service Reform), Cabinet Office 12:19 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I join those who have spoken in expressing appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this topic in a very timely way. We are awaiting the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration of the House of Commons; it has been deliberating for some time and has taken wide-ranging evidence from a number of those involved in the bodies that the noble Lord brought within his purview. I can bring only limited experience to the debate—I served on the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments—although the constitutional issues it raises have been of great interest to me and many in this House for some time.

I agree with one of the noble Lord's conclusions about the possible restructuring of these bodies. The option has been considered and, in some cases, supported by commentators and those involved in the debate that the bodies should be pooled in a gigantic organisation, for reasons of modernisation—dare I use that ugly, modern word?—and effectiveness, or to give a higher profile to the work done by these regulatory committees. I believe that the nature of the work done by all of them is quite different, each from the other. Even if one were to establish an over-riding body, it would necessarily have to operate in discrete panels. All that would be achieved would be the creation of a hierarchy of decision-making, leaving the chairman with less immediate grip on the precise issues which were being dealt with by the panel and more responsibility for, frankly, bureaucratic consideration.

I do not see that as a sensible way ahead. I notice that it was alluded to by the new First Civil Service Commissioner with particular regard to the work of her body, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and perhaps the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments on the tidy ground that it would be looking to the appointment and perhaps the promotion of civil servants as well as their conduct after leaving office. I think that very different considerations apply to each of those roles. We should avoid the argument with regard to tidiness.

I strongly subscribe to the view expressed by the noble Lord that at this time of great and widely expressed public concern about the standards of public administration and public life, the matter continues to be embarrassing for everyone involved because, in a sense, we are all tarred by the same brush. We have to see what can be done to bolster the authority of the bodies that have been established to protect our democratic system from taint, by looking not only at what they do but at what they do not do and ought to do. The objective of independence is extremely important.

Along with the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, I take a somewhat pragmatic approach to this. It is right, as he suggested, that these bodies are truly independent. He may also be right in saying that we can be satisfied with the perception of their independence. It has to be said, however, that the noble Baroness, Lady Fritchie, in her concluding report as Commissioner for Public Appointments, drew attention to her embarrassment about carrying out her work in a building which was part of the Cabinet Office and about her being the head of a body which was funded by the Cabinet Office, reported to the Cabinet Office and whose members were essentially appointed as a result of consultations with the Cabinet Office. She had a point: more could and should be done to strengthen the apparent independence of these bodies.

There are very strong arguments for putting some of these bodies on a statutory basis, as has been advocated, particularly the Civil Service Commissioners, the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments and the House of Lords Appointments Commission. All of them would be strengthened by being seen as working at arm's length from the Prime Minister from the word "go". The concentration of patronage in his hands is part of the wider constitutional problem which we face in this country of centralisation of power and the Executive's inadequate control by, and accountability to, the institutions that are part of our democracy.

I therefore go along with the broad view, but it would not be a cure-all. I would counsel against the belief that the provision of a statutory basis will necessarily overcome some of the problems about remit and direction of work. How it should be encompassed in statute is a genuine problem, because it could be either too confining, limiting the power of initiative—which, as has been suggested, is an important role of, for example, the Committee on Standards in Public Life—or too vague and not provide the clear format for the operations of the body. Those arguments are not fatal to the case for statutory basis, but they raise problems that ought to be addressed. They are an example of why we should not rush to judgment on these matters. They also illustrate why I hope there will genuinely be further debate when the Public Administration Select Committee makes its report—notwithstanding the fact that the debate has been running for some time and the uncertainties within the bodies we are seeking to regulate, which it would be comfortable to have resolved.

Accountability is the test of our willingness to look for radical solutions, and we are right to do so. The current consensus among most members of the Civil Service, present and retired, is that the proper line of reporting is as it is for such bodies; that is, through the Cabinet Office to a Minister and in turn to Parliament. Is there not a better way of making clearer the checks and balances that such arrangements are designed to fortify but which do not always have the strength that they should? You could clearly go down the route of recognising that if these bodies are going to be influential, they must take close account of the work of the Executive and what is practical in guiding the Executive towards the espousal/acceptance of the concerns of the supervisory regulatory bodies. They have to be in touch—very closely in touch—with the Executive, if they are going to come up with sensible and workable solutions.

There is more to it than that, however. If you simply engage in a dialogue with the bodies that you are seeking to regulate, you will be less open to the views that are held by members of the public and which are expressed in our democratic system through Parliament. There is a strong case for Parliament having an element of influence over the direction of such regulation, not just a theoretical one that is ex post facto when reports are published and there is an opportunity to ask Ministers about them but that influences the direction of the work of such bodies. There is much to be said for appointments being considered by Parliament or one House of Parliament; it need not be by both Houses. A process of advice and consent might help. Furthermore, it is not totally unprecedented in our system of democratic governance to seek some such independent role.

Having served for a very long time in another place as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I tend to think of the role of the National Audit Office, which is perceived as being, and is in fact, completely independent of government and whose chairman, or effective chairman, the Comptroller and Auditor-General, is appointed as a result of a dialogue between the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury Minister responsible. That recognises that the legislature and the Executive have an interest which needs to be embodied in the structures that we create to ensure the true independence of the system.

On the point that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, made about continuity, in one sense I accept what he says; but there is another requirement to which the noble Lord, Lord Neill, alluded—the need for flexibility. The truth is that the methods of government, the problems facing government and the issues that come before these bodies change, so the system has to be apt for confronting the changes of direction and quick off the mark in recognising them. There, too, we must acknowledge the difficulty of drafting the statute that allows that kind of flexibility. The informality of the procedures that are followed may be regarded as too dependent on the discretion, wisdom and judgment of those who operate them, but I am bound to say that they give a certain strength to the system in so far as they allow it to be flexibly responsive to changed circumstances. I pose that as a requirement, but I do not believe that it is an insuperable obstacle.

I hope that when we come to consider the embracing response to the Public Administration Select Committee we will not regard it as unthinkable that one or other House of Parliament should have an oversight role in respect of these matters while, at the same time, not seeking to sever the necessary intimacy of the relations with the bodies that they are overseeing.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Trade & Industry 12:34 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on initiating this very timely debate. It is odd that our practice is not to address academics in this House as learned; in my view there are few noble Lords more deserving of that appellation than my noble friend.

My noble friend wishes to call attention to the case for putting standards-setting bodies falling within the responsibility of the Cabinet Office on a statutory footing. The fact is that none of the public bodies for which the Cabinet Office has direct responsibility is established on a statutory footing. While this situation persists, board members of the very bodies which exist to call Ministers to account will be appointed by those same Ministers. I am sure that your Lordships would all be grateful to the Minister for his views on the appropriateness of this fact.

My noble friend has explained that this is as much about being seen to be independent, as about being independent. According to the Cabinet Office, advisory non-departmental public bodies are,

"ideally suited in areas where the Government needs independent, expert, ongoing, relatively low cost advice on a defined issue".

Ministers are answerable to Parliament about advisory NDPBs and have the power to wind them up. Appointees are required to be independent of government, yet they are appointed by Ministers. These facts underline the importance that they are not only independent but are seen to be independent.

My noble friend has spoken about five advisory, or non-statutory, NDPBs which are responsible for setting standards. The first of these is the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which provides advice to the Prime Minister on applications from the most senior members of the Civil Service and Armed Forces who wish to take up outside appointments within two years of leaving Crown Service. Similarly, the committee provides advice to the Foreign Secretary on applications from senior members of the Diplomatic Service. The committee also offers advice direct to former Ministers if they wish to accept employment outside government. The powers of the committee have come into question as recently as this month following the suggestion that a former Minister who served in that capacity until May 2005 accepted a position at a lobbying firm in apparent contravention of the ministerial code.

The second body which is both non-statutory and sets standards, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, was set up in 1995 following a series of recommendations from the Nolan committee intended to increase public confidence in the way in which appointments to quangos were made. The principal recommendation was that an independent commissioner should be appointed, whose role was to be the establishment of a code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies, and the monitoring of the process to ensure that those appointments are made on merit after fair and open competition.

The commissioner's code of practice covers all ministerial appointments to the boards of executive and advisory non-departmental public bodies, NHS bodies, public corporations, nationalised industries and utility regulators. As my noble friend said, the commissioner's Scottish equivalent is established under statute, so questioning any argument that the one south of the Border should not be.

The third such body is the Civil Service Commission, an independent body sponsored by the Corporate Development Group. It hears appeals from civil servants against matters such as dismissal, refusal to allow participation in political activities and forfeiture of superannuation. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, referred to the background of a possible Civil Service Bill, which noble Lords on all sides have been demanding of the Government for some time.

The fourth such body, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, was set up in 1994 with the terms of reference that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, quoted. On 12 November 1997, the new Prime Minister extended the terms of reference as follows:

"To review issues in relation to the funding of political parties, and to make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements".

This month, Sir Alistair Graham, the committee's outgoing chairman, wrote to the Cabinet Secretary about the Prime Minister's decision not to renew his appointment when his current term as chairman expires on 25 April this year. Sir Alistair raised concerns about the appointment of his successor, saying:

"I am extremely concerned that, despite raising this issue with you on a regular basis since September 2006, no arrangements have been put in place to appoint my successor. As you are aware, under public appointments rules, this will require an open competition, which even if started now, would take some months to complete, and then further delay is likely depending on the availability of the successful candidate".

He went on to say:

"This risks the perception, unfair or otherwise, that this Government places a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life".

While one can appreciate the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, for retaining the pragmatic approach, it is perhaps this sort of development which shifts the emphasis towards at least a serious consideration of the statutory route. Sir Alistair's letter was raised in the context of an Oral Question in your Lordships' House on Tuesday, to which my noble friend referred. I should like to return to it briefly today. When I asked the Minister what his reaction was to their statement, he first said that,

"any such criticism would be unfair".

As Sir Alistair made clear, whether it was fair or unfair criticism was not the point. It is as much about the perception. It is, once again, about being seen to be, as well as being, independent. The Minister went on to say, in response to my question on Tuesday:

"However, we would certainly be open to criticism ... if the Government were to ... take decisions about the future before the Select Committee had produced its recommendations".—[Hansard, 27/3/07; col. 1557.]

I find that a non-sequitur. If one were to take that line on all senior public appointments where a Select Committee was deliberating on a related issue, we would be in a state of complete paralysis—that is unless reports, so far denied by the Government, that the future of the Committee on Standards in Public Life is itself under consideration are true. I am sure that the Minister will be grateful that he has another chance to answer my question today.

The last, but not the least, of the non-statutory standards-setting bodies is the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Much has been said about it in recent months and my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, spoke about it today. As my noble friend said, we would all benefit from clarity, for example on whether its remit includes vetting the Prime Minister's resignation honours. In view of the clear likelihood that this will become topical in the next few months, the Minister will no doubt tell us what is proposed.

As several noble Lords mentioned, the Public Administration Select Committee in the other place is currently inquiring into the role and independence of the ethical regulators of government, particularly those established through ministerial powers. It will provide,

"a stocktake of the ethical regulation of Government, and will explore whether there are improvements that can be made to the present arrangements".

It raised some important questions at the outset of its inquiry, including whether it is necessary for these bodies to be seen to be independent by having a physical separation from government; and, indeed, whether it is possible for them to be genuinely independent while reliant for pay and rations on the Government whose activities they are required to regulate.

The inquiry will include examination of the non-statutory standards-setting bodies for which the Cabinet Office has responsibility and its conclusion will be an important contribution to the debate generally on this subject. Can the Minister therefore kindly assure noble Lords that the Government will give serious consideration to the committee's recommendations and take them fully into account?

There are some fundamental points which we may expect the committee to make, and they include the following. The first, as my noble friend emphasised, is that the bodies in question must be, and must be seen to be, independent of the Executive arm of government. This assumes an ever greater importance as the Executive arm becomes seemingly increasingly distrusted by the public. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, referred to concerns that the whole system might become tarred with the same brush. Secondly, and closely related to the importance of their independence, is the bodies' accountability, logically to the public through Parliament, perhaps in a similar way to the Comptroller and Auditor-General.

Thirdly, as my noble friend also mentioned, transparency is crucial in addressing those aspects. By that we mean transparency in their reporting and their more general openness and receptiveness to public scrutiny. Good indicators of this would be through regular, full, clear and accurate reporting to Parliament, and thereby the public, subject to standards and levels of disclosure stipulated in statute and subject also to independent verification. Lastly, they must have clear and simple structures and properly cover the relevant concerns. As we know, the Public Administration Select Committee is including among its considerations whether the current, often overlapping structures should be reorganised to do this more effectively.

Photo of Lord Mayhew of Twysden Lord Mayhew of Twysden Conservative

My Lords, will my noble friend acknowledge that those on the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments receive neither pay nor rations?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Trade & Industry

My Lords, I am most grateful for my noble and learned friend's intervention. I sincerely apologise for suggesting anything so improper.

As my noble friend Lord Norton explained, each of these aspects could be significantly enhanced if the bodies in question were to be given the protection of being put on a statutory footing. We would, I am sure, be grateful for the Minister's views on whether this can be achieved, and if not, why not.

As my noble friend Lord Norton and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, said, there is a rumour that a sort of super standards-setting body may be set up. Whether or not this happens, my noble friend's point is that it is much more important that the existing ones are put on a statutory footing.

In closing, I reiterate my specific questions for the Minister. First, will he kindly give us his views on the appropriateness of the fact that board members of the public bodies for which the Cabinet Office has direct responsibility, which exist to call Ministers to account, should be appointed by those same Ministers? Secondly, as I referred to in Questions on Tuesday and in today's debate, Sir Alistair Graham has clearly voiced concern that the failure to appoint his successor risks the perception that the Government place a low priority on the maintenance of the highest standards of conduct in public life. I have suggested that the Minister might again try to give a careful explanation of his assurance about why that is an inaccurate perception. Lastly, can the Minister kindly assure noble Lords that the Government will give serious consideration to the recommendations of the Public Administration Select Committee when it reports on its stocktake of the ethical regulation of government and take those fully into account?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 12:47 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing the debate and presenting a most interesting and challenging case. It is not one to which I am able to respond positively in all respects, nor would he expect that, but he certainly identified crucial advantages that might derive from placing the bodies for which the Cabinet Office is responsible on a statutory basis. We have had a lively debate, largely concentrated on the Committee on Standards in Public Life, not least because noble Lords who have served on that committee attested to the nature and value of their work, as did the noble Lord, Lord Neill, so assertively and the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. We have had an interesting debate in terms of perspectives on this issue.

Specific questions were addressed to me, not least by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who is in a favoured position; namely, having asked a Question earlier in the week to which he considered that he did not receive a satisfactory Answer, he gets a second shot at it today. Would that we were all so lucky to get such second chances. I hope that I shall satisfy him today, at least more than I appear to have done earlier in the week.

This has been a wide-ranging debate. It was bound to be given that the bodies which were clearly enumerated—the Civil Service Commissioners, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the Committee on Standards in Public Life—are very important bodies which cover a wide range of extremely important issues.

I recognise criticism about certain aspects of behaviour. The public are increasingly sceptical about all matters political, and we recognise the nature of our times and the change in our political culture. We have all sorts of explanations for that. There is an extremely questioning public, but whether that questioning relates to specific criticisms of particular bodies is an altogether different matter. I maintain that, on the whole, those bodies have operated effectively and with considerable success without a statutory footing. They are independent of the Government. It cannot be maintained that somehow, once distinguished individuals are appointed to such committees with clear terms of reference, they then lose their independence. One of the main issues of contention in this debate, advanced particularly by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, relates to Sir Alistair Graham. I cannot think that anyone is suggesting that the body that he chairs, or he as its chairman, has lacked independence and a spirit of challenge over the period in which he has been in office.

Before we suggest that we need dramatic changes to these bodies, we have to put them in the context of the quality of the work that they do. The media will, from time to time, express enormous interest in these issues, and for a short period the public may feel that,

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark", and be enormously concerned. However, more substantial surveys do not bear out the impression that the whole of public life in Britain is held in disrepute. Last year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life commissioned a national survey from the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute of public attitudes towards the standards of conduct of public office-holders in the United Kingdom. The results of that survey make for interesting reading: 74 per cent of those questioned thought that standards of public office-holders in the United Kingdom were higher than or about average compared with those elsewhere in Europe; 64 per cent thought that standards of public office-holders had either improved or stayed the same compared to a few years ago: and only 13 per cent rated the standard of conduct of public office-holders as low.

That is a slightly different perspective from the alarm bells that are sometimes rung in the media and are reinforced by comments during the course of lively political debate to suggest that everything to do with public life is held in low regard by the nation. Some of those bodies have attracted very little criticism of their work. We have scarcely heard a critical mention in this debate, which gave an opportunity for critical voices to be heard. Who does not think that the Civil Service Commissioners set good standards on recruitment by which the Civil Service goes about its tasks? They audit compliance by departments and agencies against those standards. They publish a recruitment code that interprets the principle of selection to the Civil Service on merit on the basis of fair and open competition. They also hear appeals from home civil servants under the Civil Service Code that cannot be resolved through internal departmental procedures.

The Civil Service Commissioners are chaired by Janet Paraskeva, whose predecessor as First Civil Service Commissioner was the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. No one is suggesting that their work has not been up to standard. They have been operating on that basis for over 150 years. During that period, it has been necessary for their role to evolve and keep pace with changing times. For example, the new Civil Service Code, issued in June 2006, allows the Civil Service Commissioners to hear a complaint under the code directly from a civil servant. In addition, the selection panels for the most senior appointments to the Civil Service are now chaired by a Civil Service Commissioner. They show ability and an element of flexibility, to which I will return later in relation to other committees. The Civil Service Commissioners have had an excellent record in those terms.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned the question of a Civil Service Bill, which did not feature as the most fundamental part of the debate. There is considerable public interest in that, and there is interest in this House. I am not in a position today to make a statement about a Civil Service Bill, but a statement will be made in due course. Criticisms have been expressed about the necessity for a Civil Service Bill. The issues that have been raised in consultation on the Bill, which has been in the public domain for some time, have resulted in action already within the framework of government. There is already an annual report to Parliament on special adviser numbers, costs and responsibilities. One of the prompts behind the concept of the Civil Service Bill is the inclusion of the responsibilities of special advisers. Updated codes of conduct for Ministers and special advisers were published in July 2005. Induction programmes for new Ministers and special advisers, so that their roles are clarified and the boundaries and responsibilities are clearly defined, take place already. There is consultation with the main Opposition party leaders on the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner and the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It is contended that the Bill becoming an Act has been overlong in the waiting as far as some noble Lords are concerned. The Government are aware of some significant issues, and we have ensured that appropriate action has been taken within the framework of government.

The Commissioner for Public Appointments also seems to have occasioned limited comment today. I am not sure whether it is meant to be in the statutory framework that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is suggesting, but I presume that it is. The strength of the regulatory system for making public appointments was commented on by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which praised the arrangements. It commented on:

"The successful development of a culture which recognises the importance of appointment on merit ... The broad ... acceptance by appointing authorities of the Commissioner for Public Appointments' authority as custodian of the Code of Practice on Public Appointments; and ... The commitment of most appointing authorities to running proportionate operations, strong on process, but that clear outcomes—excellent appointments contributing to public service delivery and carrying the confidence of both ministers and the general public—are important too".

The existing arrangements have been commented on by the very committee that has been the main focal point of discussion and debate in this House today and in recent consideration; the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton, indicated that that body would benefit if it had been established in statute. First, does anyone doubt its independence? Whatever one says about the period of tenure of Sir Alistair Graham—and it has been true of his predecessors, too—does anyone think that he was in anything other than a category entirely independent from Government? I have heard it said today that he was a thorn in the side of the Government from time to time and challenged them. Objectively, that is certainly the case. What does that establish? It establishes his independence.

Secondly, I very much respect the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Neill, on the importance of flexibility and the ability of a committee such as this to address the significant issues of the moment, which, if it were in statute, could not even begin to address issues that were not within its terms of reference until an Act of Parliament had been amended. Given that the committee would need to look at issues of high controversy, can one think of the process by which such a Bill would go through Parliament? All noble Lords are experienced enough to appreciate that that Bill would have a fairly stormy passage, it certainly would not be swift in its execution and achievement and it would lose precisely the features that the noble Lord, Lord Neill, identified, in terms of the past practice of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I have been questioned by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, on the continuation of the committee. Let me put this into context—and I am somewhat surprised that the Opposition do not recognise the significance of that context. On one side, the Government are being pressed to recognise that a Select Committee in the other place has been engaged on these issues for a considerable period. It rightly expects its recommendations to be taken seriously and the noble Lord enjoined me to give an assurance that the Government would look at its recommendations with due care and attention and take them seriously. I give that commitment. That committee is due to report shortly.

Also, we are in a unique position. Whether this House has suddenly become so delicate about democratic affairs that it will eschew any discussion about what is happening at the other end, I am not sure. It did not have such reservations yesterday, although that was a different matter. We should not ignore the fact that this country is in a unique situation in which a Prime Minister has announced that he is giving up his position within a certain time frame, leading to the expectation that there will be a change of Prime Minister in the next few months. Suggesting that that does not impact at all on a body such as the Committee on Standards in Public Life while a Select Committee is evaluating the work of that body and others is engaging in an element of naivety. Of course, we expect that the Government will look at the recommendations of that committee with due seriousness, but we also recognise that the Government who will be doing that will be on the point of change, as far as the office of Prime Minister is concerned.

Like other chairmen of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alistair is leaving after three years in office. Is there therefore anything surprising or particularly sinister in his term of office coming to an end at this stage?

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is a cause of great concern that, unlike his two predecessors, the term of office of Sir Alistair has not been extended to cover the interim period before a successor has been appointed and that that appears to be an attempt by the Government to punish him for the outspoken manner in which he has conducted his chairmanship?

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords)

No, my Lords, that is not the case at all and his very able deputy is carrying on the work of the committee. The simple fact of the matter is that Sir Alistair's term came to an end, as the terms of all previous chairmen have, and he has been asked to resign to complete his term on that basis. The suspicion would be valid if we were not in the unique situation that I have just described; namely, that we have an important report from the Select Committee in another place on these very issues and we expect the Government to consider that report with great seriousness. I refute the concept that there has been some improper activity on the part of the Government as far as Sir Alistair is concerned. What is quite clear from the letters that have been exchanged between him and the Cabinet Secretary is how much his work on the committee has been appreciated over these past three years.

I come to the final points that I want to make on these matters. In expressing a constructive proposal on how these committees could be enhanced in public life, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has stimulated a debate that has produced conflicting opinions. All noble Lords who have contributed to the debate have helped to flesh out these issues and I am grateful to those who have served on particular committees for identifying their experiences.

We have to put this matter in context. Britain does not have public life, public administration or a Civil Service that set low standards—very far from it. It is to Britain that a large number of people come to attend our National School of Government in order to understand how Administrations can be run—free, fair, proper, to standards of probity and with the absence of corruption. The bodies which are the subject of this debate play their part in the vital role of setting and upholding those standards across the nation.

While recognising the constructive criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, we should also recognise that we do not want to lose the virtues of the past, nor should be succumb to a crude populism that suggests that public life is held in low regard, that standards are declining rapidly and that the nation is ill-served. Far from it—we should have confidence in the institutions that we have.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 1:08 pm, 29th March 2007

My Lords, I see from the Clock that I have slightly less than an hour in which to respond. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I would put the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, slightly differently, and say that the emphasis has been on quality rather than quantity. Sometimes a short debate can be more productive than a long one and, as the Minister said, it has been especially valuable to hear from noble Lords with experience of one or more of the bodies that we are discussing. That has shown the value of debates such as this.

I take many of the points that have been made. I especially agree with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, on a Civil Service Act; there is general agreement from everyone on the quality of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, as evidenced by its latest annual report. However, it will be no surprise that I agree with the theory of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, rather than that of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, concerning the remit of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and what flows from that. Once the committee starts to look into the role of political parties, that puts it beyond simple answerability to the Prime Minister.

I agree very much with what the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said about not seeing this as a perfect solution. It is merely a means to an end, and it is important to get the means themselves absolutely right. I take his point: one would have to devise the statutes so that, in effect, flexibility was written into them. As I mentioned earlier, it is merely a starting point and there is then a question of how the powers are used.

I am grateful for the Minister's reply. He offered us some insight into the Government's thinking, which appears to be, "We can't see what the problem is". He is right to say that the standards maintained in this country are comparatively high, but some of the other surveys commissioned by the Committee on Standards in Public Life show a less rosy picture than he indicated in respect of particular actors in this country. The fact that we achieve higher standards than elsewhere is no basis for complacency. We should strive for the best, not simply to be above average.

The Minister's other argument concerned perception. I rather enjoyed listening to it because he effectively destroyed the whole case put forward by the Government for the Constitutional Reform Act. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, will remember, the Government's argument was: "We can't prove that there is any perception that the Law Lords are not independent but we perceive there's a perception; therefore, we need to move them out of the House of Lords". So the logic of the argument advanced by the Minister is that the Government should now introduce a Bill to repeal the Constitutional Reform Act. I am sure that we look forward to that.

As I said, this has been a valuable debate. There is a case for looking at the role of these bodies to see whether they should be on a statutory basis and whether some, rather than all, of them should be on a statutory basis. We need to pursue that and I may well pursue it later through a Private Member's Bill to ensure that it remains on the agenda. I am sure that we will return to the matter in due course but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.